A few weeks ago, after one of our services, I saw a young boy gazing up at our new liturgical banners which celebrate the seasons of the church. He was a thoughtful seven-year-old who told me that he, too, was an artist. I asked him if he liked the banners, and he said enthusiastically, “Oh, yes, I like the colors and the shapes.” His gaze remained steadfast as we both pondered the interplay of color and light. I asked, “And what do you see?” He answered, “I see God.”
Today we hear a strange story of Peter gazing upon Jesus transfigured in light high atop a mountain peak. Now in the visual vocabulary of the Bible, we know that mountains are holy hot spots. They are the place of divine revelation. We recognize that Jesus brought the disciples up the mountain so that they might discover something new, but what in heaven’s name is going on here on earth? Jesus, who is shining brighter than the noonday sun, is suddenly joined by Moses and Elijah, two stellar prophets from Israel’s past. There is so much star power up on that mountain that Peter’s head is spinning! He thinks he ought to build tents to house all this glory. So he begins scurrying about like a Senate intern running back and forth from the Senate floor to his boss’s office; Peter, in a word, is over-functioning.
We see in Peter’s attempt to set up beautiful dwellings an almost comical act of cocooning. It’s as if Peter wants to capture all this glory in one perfect Kodak moment. But if you look closely, you’ll see that Peter is cocooning as a way to avoid fear. It seems so much easier to stay up on the mountain and attend to God’s glory than it is to face what waits ahead.
A few days ago Peter, in a moment of courage, confessed Jesus to be Messiah. But when Jesus tells him that his journey to Jerusalem includes death and dying and, astonishingly, resurrection, Peter refuses to hear anything about suffering. And so, six days later during this peak experience, Peter is only too eager to convince himself that there will be no vulnerable, cross-bearing Christ, but only a Messiah of majesty and light. Because Peter is afraid; he does not want to lose Jesus.
What Peter’s example tells us is that change is unsettling. We don’t like change. We don’t like our assumptions challenged, we don’t like our game-plan-for-life disturbed, no matter how much the “new thing” glitters and glows. And we especially don’t like to lose those whom we love. And so we approach this story with both trepidation and awe. We are either drawn to its mystical dimensions like a moth to flame, or it seems so incredulous that we hold it at arm’s distance. But either response suggests it is fear that underlies our reaction when God draws near. And it seems that it was that way for the disciples too. No wonder Peter wants to cocoon.
Now we’ve heard a lot about cocooning these past few years. Sociologists and other commentators tell us that North-Americans have been retreating to their homes—to their little cocoons—for safety and comfort in an unpredictable world of fear and terror, global poverty, climate change. Did you know that whole websites are dedicated to the art of cocooning? They teach how to build cozy abodes for nesting.
And with our iPods with ear buds, we now have the choice of mobile cocooning. We can move about anywhere within the safety of our own personal soundtrack-for-life. No need to feel uneasy, even when we don’t see where life is heading. But as we busily go about building our palaces of personal protection, even our cocooning takes an anxious turn as we begin to sense that our cozy cocoon has in reality become: a virtual cave. We are closed- off, without light, cold, cramped and solitary. Though afraid to admit it, we can each feel like a child who is afraid of the dark, yet afraid to cry out. We ache to be held in a comforting embrace, to experience a touch that that says the morning will come, our daystar will rise—all shall be well.
But the gospel truth is this: our light has come and the darkness did not overcome it. All will be well. It’s been said that today’s story functions as a limbering up exercise for Lent. Jesus, saturated in light, is like a movie preview of resurrection as we begin our Lenten journey. As Jesus shines forth, transfigured in undying love for the world, God wants to transfigure us too. But God also knows that we are burrowed into our caves. So invariably, God must intervene.
And that’s exactly what God must do with Peter. But getting Peter’s attention is no easy matter. So God must make a house call. Suddenly, up on the mountain, a cloud of light envelops them. God speaks. It’s quite effective. Peter is rendered utterly senseless, so that he might regain his senses and follow.
God speaks the same words we heard at the Jordan, when Jesus bursts forth from the waters of baptism, “This is my son, my beloved; with him I am well pleased.” But now God adds three crucial words. “Listen to him!” The act of “listening” in the Bible does not just mean hearing a lecture, or heeding some advice; it actually connotes faithful following. Listening is a root word for obedience. And so God’s command to listen is meant as a word for us as well. We are to break forth from our fear and follow Jesus. But in our story the disciples remain terrified: eyes closed, bellies to the ground, finger-clenching terrified.
And the disciples are not alone! Even the great heroes of our own age know fear. Martin Luther King, Jr. surely was no stranger to fear. Awakened one night by a hideous and revolting phone call, King received a death threat. Worried about losing his life and fearing for his young family’s safety, he cried out to God saying, “I am taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. I am at the end of my powers, I have nothing left.” And like the disciple Peter, King began to question his ability to follow God’s call; he thought of retreating. He thought God was not there. It was then he heard a voice within, quiet but sure, saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth and God will be on your side forever.” In the moment of his distress, in his hour of affliction, God intervened. He recounts, “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me…never to leave me alone.” Almost at once, says King, “My fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared.” King, like a butterfly shedding its cocoon, was transfigured.
King believed, although fear would always be with us, we ought not to let fear paralyze us, and in his own fear experienced our need for constant conversion. It seems to me that it is not so much that we are saved by faith, but rather we are saved in our fear. You see, God wants to transfigure us, to take our fear and use it for good. We will never be fully without fear, but we will also never be without Christ. That’s the promise. When we are afraid, Jesus does what he always does. He touches us and says, “Get up, be not afraid.” When Peter is at his lowest, on the ground and trembling, that’s when Jesus comes, with a touch and word that transforms and transfigures: “Be not afraid,” says Jesus, “for I am with you always even to the end of the age.”
Yesterday, we had a great choral festival with both children and adults. A little girl of six wandered by the clergy vesting room. It is a cave-like, Harry Potter-Hogwarts kind of room. She peeked in and said, in a manner a very matter-of-fact manner, “I’m looking for my grandmother. I said, “She is not here,” and then I saw a look of fear flash across her face. I went to her, and asked, “Are you ok?” and her eyes welled up with tears, she started to grow panicky and said, “I’ve been looking and looking, but I can’t find her.” I placed my hand on her back and said, “Let’s go find her. I know she’s here. This is a big cathedral she’s here, you just can’t see her.”
I stroked her hair, and as we walked and said, “I promise you she’s here and we’ll find her, because it’s just like it is with Jesus, he is always here, but sometimes you just can’t see him.” Her head popped up in a look of astonishment. She thought, and then she smiled. And just as we turned the corner of the north transept aisle, and there was her grandmother, she flew into her arms and cried out in a mixture of joy and tears, “I thought I’d lost you, but you really are still here.”
Beloved, God is with us, and God is calling each of you to greatness: to become who you truly are, transformed into the likeness and light of our Lord. As you go forth today, give yourself the gift of “epiphany experiences,” those “banner moments,” because when we rise to the light that God gives us, more and more light is given. God is calling you to come out of your cocoon, to break out of your cave. To rise up to a life of greater promise and possibility, to be receptive to meeting God in the most unexpected of places. So where is your banner moment? When will you next see God?